Although we all lived 20 miles or more away, as soon as we landed inside Jo Jo Carloni's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria in Olmsted Falls, we immediately felt like neighborhood regulars. Despite its zip code, the snug space had all the Old World charm of our favorite spag-and-ball joints in Little Italy, where descriptors like "gourmet" and "trendy" are replaced by "hearty" and "comforting" and "I can't believe I ate the whole thing."
I normally don't drive 40 minutes across town to dine at small-town Italian-American restaurants regardless of how good they sound. But when I learned that owners John and Jennifer Minkiewicz had been tapped to open up a new place in the splashy West 25th Street Lofts development in the heart of Ohio City, I rearranged my schedule, rounded up some friends, and made the trip.
At approximately 150 seats (not counting courtyard dining and private event space), the new joint will dwarf the original 30-seat spot when it opens this spring or summer. When it does open, I hope the restaurant retains the look, feel and appeal of the four-year-old gem down south. From the red-and-white checked tablecloths with "Map of Italia" placemats to the bouncy black booths festooned with decorative Chianti bottles in straw baskets, Jo Jo's is a classic red-sauce joint with bona fide cred.
Given the diminutive footprint, it doesn't take long to meet the hospitable owners, who are eager to guide this group of first-timers through the short beer and wine list, tick off the most popular entrees, and deliver a plate of warm housemade rolls glistening with garlic butter. Owner John points to a matching pair of faded black-and-white photos to reveal a pedigree that is equal parts Italian and Polish.
Meals here still come with bread, salad or soup, but it's always a good idea to sample the appetizers. Starters like sausage-stuffed banana peppers ($9) and stuffed eggplant ($8) reveal the owners' commitment to tradition and simplicity. Thin slices of eggplant are breaded by hand, rolled around herbed ricotta cheese, sauced with marinara, and baked until the cap of provolone and mozzarella is good and melted. Salads are as old-school as they come, with cool, crisp iceberg topped with red onion, shaved carrot, shredded cheese and a house vinaigrette on the sweet side. Swap the salad for the wedding soup if you want something hot and savory (though lacking meatballs).
Pizzas, made with fresh dough, come in three different crusts and four different sizes. In between the thin crust and deep dish is original, a Cleveland-style pie that is thick, doughy and cheesy in all the right places. The small is an ideal size for four to split as an appetizer. Loaded with Italian and chorizo sausages and diced hot peppers, Divo's Hot Pepper ($14) has a welcome kick to balance the sweet, tangy sauce.
Jo Jo's has a broad and deep catalog of Italian-American pastas, baked casseroles and meat-based entrees. One of the few house-made pasta dishes, the thick-walled ravioli ($12) come filled with meat or cheese and topped with marinara. For an extra couple of bucks you can swap the red sauce for creamy Alfredo or vodka sauce. In the baked manicotti ($13), large pasta tubes are filled with herbed ricotta, topped with marinara and cheese, and baked. Both pasta dishes came to the table less than hot, perhaps because they were waiting for the veal Marsala ($17), which did arrive piping hot. The veal cutlets were breaded and pan-fried and laid on a bed of linguine. A rich and creamy wine sauce with mushrooms covered the tender meat and pasta.
At lunchtime, a scaled-down menu offers all the pizzas along with a few pastas and sandwiches like a meatball sub or a hot Italian with cheese. Desserts like homemade cheesecake, tiramisu and cannoli are available all day long.
As the principal food service operator at the West 25th Street Lofts, Jo Jo's will be the home restaurant for the tenants of the 85 or so apartments as well as the surrounding neighborhood. While Ohio City is ground central for dining these days, there is a surprising lack of old-fashioned Italian-American places. Bruno's immediately comes to mind, but that's a good two miles away. If Jo Jo's doesn't stray too far from its current routine of providing large portions of comfort-food chestnuts for a more-than-reasonable price, they should be welcomed warmly. They might want to beef up the beer and wine lists, which are paltry by modern standards, but that's about as far as they'll need to push things.